Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Review: ‘I, Tonya’ and the latest take on a classic Oregon story

For those who don’t want it, and sometimes even for those who do, fame can destroy careers and make life after those careers unbearable for people. Add a criminal investigation into the mix, and the chances of that scenario occurring skyrocket. The new film “I, Tonya” forces viewers to examine how mass media attention played a role in the downfall of former Olympic figure skater and Portland native Tonya Harding.

Harding remains a cultural icon across the U.S., and especially Oregon, where her unconventional and controversial skating career took off and ultimately ended wrapped in negative media attention.

The film is a dark comedy, drama and documentary rolled into one high energy, sports story. It’s driven by the wrenching, but comic performances of Robbie and her supporting cast. The acting is magnified by the film’s rollercoaster tempo and accentuated by asides, in which characters look at the camera and talk directly to the audience. The asides clarify individual characters’ questionable perspectives in a way similar to those in the NBC hit TV series, “The Office.”

“I, Tonya” sheds light on Harding’s formative, young years. It contrasts with the plethora of documentaries, TV specials and interviews — among them are E! True Hollywood Story and The Oprah Winfrey Show — that were solely concerned with the most notorious aspect of Harding’s career: the assault on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics and the ensuing criminal investigation into Harding and her circle.

Throughout Harding’s young life, she endured her parents’ divorce and then constant physical and emotional abuse by both her mother and her former husband, Jeff Gillooly. At times it’s hard to watch. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting those abuses repeatedly and in a graphic way. Allison Janney received Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes on Jan. 7 for her portrayal Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden.

Director Craig Gillespie has received both praise and criticism for juxtaposing the violence in Harding’s life with an overarching sense of humor. Since Gillespie based the film on various previously recorded interviews with Harding and the people around her at that time, the accuracy of some depictions simply depend on which character is most believable.

But the humor does justice to a number of bizarre characters in Harding’s life. Childhood friend of Gillooly and Harding’s former bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, publicly lied about his credentials as a counter-terrorism expert. He is beautifully portrayed as a conspiracy-theorizing imbecile by actor Paul Walter Hauser.

By the end of the film, viewers are left to grapple with the idea that Harding was a victim and never got a fair shake in both her professional and personal lives. It calls into question Harding’s court-ordered banishment from all competitive skating following the Kerrigan assault investigation.

“I moved from Oregon to Washington because Oregon was buttheads,” Tonya Harding told The New York Times during a recent interview following the release of the film.

“I, Tonya” is now playing at the Broadway Metro theater in downtown Eugene and is well worth the ticket price for anyone interested in Oregon’s recent pop-culture history.

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Max Egener

Max Egener

Max Egener is an Arts & Culture writer for the Daily Emerald. He covers documentaries, food and science and is currently pursuing a master's degree in journalism.